In the shadows…

As I sit in my dressing room at Opera North, far too early for my call (as usual) I begin to think again about what it means to play the role of Peter Quint. It is a role that I have wanted to do for as long as I knew I wanted to perform opera. My wife sang Flora at university and I saw the production several times, each time becoming more aware of how wonderful and beguiling Quint’s music is.

Our Quint lurks in the shadows. Is he there? Are ghosts real or are they the figments of a nervous young lady’s imagination? I have wonderful freedom to move around backstage, throwing my voice in different directions to create the sensation that Quint is everywhere. The calls of ‘Miles’ are terribly liberating. A stark contrast indeed to much of the rest of the performance. You see (SPOILER ALERT), Quint seldom emerges from the shadows. All the jocular, colourful imagery of play with Miles has to be sung from a fixed position in the wing, only partially visible and shrouded, removing any chance to portray anything physical. Yet this is an excellent opportunity to concentrate on the extremely fine detail of Britten’s music, which was such a gift for Peter Pears.

As a British tenor I owe so much to Pears and Britten. It isn’t just that rarely does a month pass without me performing at least one work by Britten, but also that performing anything written for Pears is a joy. Every text and vocal line presents delights and challenges. Seldom if ever do I feel I’ve ‘nailed’ it, but even the feeling of moving in the right direction is (to quote The Journey of the Magi) satisfactory. So why is it so hard to feel that I’ve got it right?

Pears’ own interpretations cast a shadow over us all. He was such a prolific recording artist that almost every note composed for him was recorded. Such was his ability to colour every syllable in his distinct and natural way, that to imitate seems mannered and shallow.

I have recently had the opportunity to record music written for Pears by both Britten and Richard Rodney Bennett. Bennett’s Tom O’Bedlam, a scene written for Pears in 1961 is a ‘mad scene’ which is not unlike the role of Quint, one minute beguiling, the next hard and aggressive. NMC Records have released this and Colin Matthews, a composer and musician who knew Britten and Pears well was executive producer. Colin also advised me on the use of Britten’s own piano transcriptions for my first recital disc – Departures. Quatre Chansons Francaises were not written for Pears, but upon listening to any male voice singing even his earliest music it is clear that Pears’ was the voice for which Britten had been waiting. This being the case, how do we measure up?

Perhaps we simply have to see Pears’ work as Genesis. We have enjoyed wonderful performances on disc by Langridge, Rolfe Johnson, Ainsley, Hadley, Bostridge and many others and our enjoyment of their work is not diminished by intimate recollection of Pears’ own work.

They emerged from Pears’ shadow, as the next generation of tenors must emerge from theirs. I hope this is the beginning of my journey from the shadows, whilst remaining in the shady wings of Opera North.

Ten days to go…

Ben Hulett 22nd September 2010

Songs Before Sleep

Sir Richard Rodney Bennett
NMC 155 – Available now

Departures –
Berkeley/Quilter/Swayne (World Premiere)/Britten/Vaughan Williams
Benjamin Hulett, tenor with Alexander Soddy, piano
Saphrane Records – Available to order now